Researchers working in the Sahara Desert claim to have found one of the world's oldest maps. If confirmed, the discovery will rival the 6000 year old mural at Catal Hoyuk in Turkey - the oldest known depiction of geography. The Sahara map is already causing a revolution in Egyptology. An amateur archaeologist called Carlo Bergmann found the map chiselled into rock at a campsite at Djedefre's Water Mountain, deep in the desert. Inscriptions at the site mark it as a stopping point for an expedition sent out by the 4th Dynasty ruler Khufu to gather a mysterious substance called mefat. Khufu was also known as Cheops (who lies in the Great Pyramid at Giza). Local radio-carbon dating puts the site at 2600 BC.
Modern archaeologists do not know what mefat was,or why it was so valuable. However, they do know that in the desert 4500 years ago, water was precious. Another inscription at the site appears to show ten wells and several irrigated fields. Two of these are connected to a water source.
Using the map as a guide, Bergmann has identified ten outposts between six and nine kilometres from the campsites. He believes that these are the remains of the ancient wells.
There is considerable controversy over the aging of the artefacts. Klaus Khulmann of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, who has closely studied the map, says it is Phaeronic, probably 4th Dynasty. He concludes that it is probably associated with the other engravings at the site made at the time of the mefat mission.
But Bergmann says the symbology on the map shows that it is the product of some older pre-phaeronic civilisation that arose in the desert.
This is especially controversial. Since the time of the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, it has been believed that the Egyptian civilisation we know was the first in the region, one of perhaps five sites around the world where civilisation arose independently
The others would be the early civilisations of China, Iraq, Mexico and South America.
Historians and archaeologists continue to uncover compelling evidence that the Western Sahara was occupied by pottery-making, icon-writing people about 5000 BC. These people may well have originated in modern-day Chad or Sudan, and established trade routes into the Nile valley.
Bergmann believes that Djedefre is part of one of these ancient trade routes. He is currently following the Abu Ballas Trail south and west from Luxor on the Nile.
Recently, Stephan Kropelin, a geologist at the University of Cologne, discovered icons at a site in the Sudan, 700 kilometres from Djedefre, that appear to be identical with those found by Bergmann. If they are, this might be the first direct evidence that Egyptian civilisation did not spring fully formed from the waters of the Nile. There may indeed have been even earlier civilisations in the region.